About a ten minute walk from my hotel close to London’s Russell Square, is one of the capital’s most interesting museums – to my mind, anyway. The Foundling Museum is small – you can whip around it in half an hour – but the history continued within this building in Brunswick Square, on the site of Britain’s first foundling hospital, is poignant and, I think, timely
In an extraordinary act of moral courage and vision – at a time hallmarked by debauchery and excess – a seafaring man, and something of an entrepreneur, Thomas Coram, saw the need for such an institution, and did something about it. Returning from a lengthy sojourn in the Colonies with his Bostonian wife in 1702, he was rather less than wealthy due to a few problematic business deals, and had little social clout, given his position and the times. However, Coram became appalled at the numbers of young children he saw, “exposed, sometimes alive, sometimes dead, and sometimes dying,” at the roadside. A child-lover and known for his activism in America (he had set up a colony for destitute soldiers in Massachusetts and had also campaigned for Mohican land rights), he could not get those images of suffering out of his head. Without delving deeply into the history of his quest in this post, suffice it to say it took him seventeen years to render his vision of a safe haven for foundlings a reality. Stubbornness helped: In New England he had been described as, “a man of that obstinate, persevering temper, as never to desist from his first enterprise, whatever obstacles lie in his way.”
It’s interesting, now, to think that when The Foundlings Hospital was first built. on 56 acres of pasture land on what is now just west of the Gray’s Inn Road, and barely a five-minute walk from the very place where a terrorist’s bomb went off on July 7, 2005, it was a very rural area, described in Jane Austen’s “Emma” as being, “so very airy.” It must have been a breath of fresh air if you were one of the 27,000 of London’s abandoned children who were taken in by hospital during its years of service.
Eventually, the hospital was relocated to Hertfordshire in 1926, and the original building demolished, fine architectural example though it was. And, as we know, institutions became an unpopular solution to the housing of humanity’s problems, and through the decades it has been considered more effective if the dispossessed and less than fortunate are absorbed into the community where they will no doubt be welcomed as part of society. This would be that same society who turned their backs a couple of hundred years earlier.
So, it was interesting to go to this place just one day after new findings revealed that child poverty in Britain has increased for the first time in six years. And before we get smug, I think we might not have a sterling record in the USA, either. Think “Katrina.” The British charity, Barnardos, called the situation, "a moral disgrace.” (Barnardos, by the way, grew out of the Dr. Barnardo’s Children’s Homes, which were orphanages founded in the nineteenth century by – you guessed it – Dr. Barnardo).
But with Britain’s generous social services policies, which include national healthcare, housing, and a myriad of possible allowances, their circumstances must seem palatial to the children of West Africa, who are sent to the cocoa farms, because the world-wide love of chocolate means that there can never be enough cocoa picked, and cheaply. Seems that the 2001 international outcry at the use and abuse of children on the cocoa farms, and the stern warnings from the US Congress that led to the signing of the “Cocoa Protocol” by the chocolate industry, has amounted to little after an initial flurry of activity. The deadlines to meet certain goals came and went and the industry then went on its sweet way, although there is one “model farm” where a mud hut-like schoolroom has been built for the children who come to farm. I’ll think of that next time I get a chocolate craving. Sadly, there are no little kisses for those children.
Also interesting, was the fact that my little foray across the square came just two days after an open letter was sent from a collective of some of Europe’s most esteemed writers, about the situation in Darfur, where, as it happens, thousands of children are dying. In the letter, the writers (Umberto Eco, Dario Fo, Günter Grass, Jürgen Habermas, Václav Havel, Seamus Heaney, Bernard Henri-Levy, Harold Pinter, Franca Rame and Tom Stoppard) said, “How dare we Europeans celebrate this weekend while on a continent some few miles south of us the most defenseless, dispossessed and weak are murdered in Sudan? Has the European Union - born of atrocity to unite against further atrocity - no word to utter, no principle to act on, no action to take, in order to prevent these massacres in Darfur? Is the cowardliness over Srebrenica to be repeated? If so, what do we celebrate? The thin skin of our political join? The futile posturings of our political class? The impotent nullities of our bureaucracies?”
I wonder what someone like Thomas Coram would have said, in these abundant times (for many of us) where our excess is effectively killing our planet , about the fact that children around the world are still among the dispossessed, and are suffering.
In the entrance to the room that houses the history of The Foundling Hospital, there’s an introduction which includes the following: “Every child and every generation of children, throughout history and across the globe, represents the future ... they are our individual and collective responsibilities. And none more so than the vulnerable, the abandoned, the sick, the hungry, and the unloved.” With all the terrible things that are happening to the children in this world, whether it is abandonment in the home (anywhere), the guns in Iraq, lack of education or opportunity (anywhere), being drugged and told to fight in Africa ... oh, doesn’t that list go on?, I keep thinking about a message I saw on a t-shirt once: Children should be seen, heard and believed.
After Coram’s original Foundling Hospital was demolished, the land became Coram's Fields, and is now a playground for children. No adult may enter unless accompanied by a child.
To send this post to a friend, please click on the envelope icon below. To take action on behalf of a child, if you Google “children’s charities” or “helping children” it ‘s interesting what comes up.